The dangers of energy drinks

A UCalgary researcher leads new recommendations and warnings on the safety of energy drinks and calls for tighter restrictions on marketing to youths.

By Jacqueline Louie
For the Faculty of Kinesiology
February 9, 2018


Fifteen-year-old Brian Shepherd was competing in a day-long paintball tournament when he was given an energy drink to sample. A lifelong athlete with no known underlying medical condition, he collapsed and died that evening of an unexplained arrhythmia. His father, Jim, suspects the energy drink was contributory to Brian’s death, “if not the whole cause."

Brian’s death is no longer considered an isolated incident. Energy drinks are becoming increasingly popular, especially among young people, but as energy drink use has risen, so too has the number of incident reports of emergency room visits, poison control calls and even deaths associated with energy drink consumption.

“It is rare, but it happens, with documented adverse effects and deaths around the world as a result of children consuming energy drinks,” says the University of Calgary’s Jane Shearer, an associate professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology and member of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute in the Cumming School of Medicine.

Above: Jane Shearer, associate professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology, says children and adolescents run a higher risk of complications from caffeine. “Energy drinks loaded with caffeine are not a sports drink. Many parents do not recognize this difference.” Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Shearer is an author of newly published guidelines by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) on energy drink use.

“Children and adolescents appear to be at particularly high risk of complications from energy drinks due to their small body size, being relatively caffeine-naive, and potentially heavy and frequent consumption patterns, as well as the amounts of caffeine. The message that these beverages are not intended for children needs to be re-enforced and widely disseminated,” ACSM states.

According to the ACSM’s recommendations recently published in Current Sports Medicine Reports, energy drinks should not be used for hydration before, during or after physical activity. The combination of exercise and high caffeine dosage can be dangerous, especially for people who may have an underlying health condition, Shearer explains.

Although energy drinks are not intended for consumption by children under 18 and carry a Health Canada-mandated label to that effect, there is a high prevalence of energy drink use among youth, especially athletes, and young males in particular. “Energy drink marketing is very much targeted to kids and adolescents, with energy drink companies sponsoring video games, athletes and high risk sports appealing to children,” Shearer says. “Restrictions on how and where energy drinks are marketed require both regulation and enforcement in Canada.”

For many consumers, it’s a blurry line between energy drinks and sports drinks, which are typically found side by side in stores. “Anyone can walk into a convenience store and buy as many energy drinks as they want, and it doesn’t matter how old they are,” Shearer says. “Energy drinks loaded with caffeine are not a sports drink. Many parents do not recognize this difference.” There is also need for education — in schools, for athletes, health-care providers and trainers — about the potentially adverse effects of energy drink consumption, so that users can make an informed decision about whether or not to consume them.

As Jim Shepherd puts it: "The ACSM recommendations mirror my goals perfectly. Key is promoting awareness, and restricting the sale of energy drinks to those under 18 years. We need to protect our children.”

Energy Drinks: A Contemporary Issue Paper was published in Current Sports Medicine Reports, American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), by Jane Shearer (Faculty of Kinesiology, member of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute in the Cumming School of Medicine, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Cumming School of Medicine, University of Calgary); John P. Higgins (McGovern Medical School at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston); Kavita Babu (Division of Medical Toxicology, Department of Emergency Medicine, UMass Memorial Medical Center, Worcester, MA); and Patricia Duster (Department of Military and Emergency Medicine, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, D Consortium for Health and Military Performance, Bethesda, MD).



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